When I stay away from the shelter for too long, I forget why I need it. I forget what hooked me in the first place, what has made me return week after week, through bad weather and bad moods. I forget that it found me when I was without purpose and had trouble leaving the house. That it pulled me from the dark place where I’d been hibernating. I forget that I need the shelter more than it needs me.
After a three week hiatus from preparing lunch, serving it, and cleaning up on Fridays, I return, grumpy and unmotivated, to the cramped kitchen. To the dreadlocked cook and the quirky kitchen coordinator. To the 65 residents who live there for a month or two at a time before transitioning out to make room for other people in crisis. To the lunches made with donated hot dog buns and subsidized milk.
At 12pm we open the doors and a small trickle of people file in. The woman who is fifth in line is unremarkable by the shelter’s standards. She is small-boned with curly hair that is loose and wild around her head. Her gait is interrupted by a limp. She wears a black t-shirt that’s too small. It shows an inch of skin above the waistband of her sweatpants. Her glasses were either provided by the shelter when she arrived, or she bought them during better times. She stands at the hot line and asks the cook about the lunch options. She’s told that we’re having chicken sausage or pork sausage sandwiches with hot marinara and melted cheese. She picks the chicken sausage and gets a large helping of french fries to accompany it. When she moves down to the cold line, several feet from the hot, I ask her what she’d like. Just milk, she says, and I pour her a tall glass.
She sits down alone at a round table and the next ten minutes pass. I dole out applesauce and mixed fruit cocktail, potato salad and raw carrots with ranch dressing. I tell the kids to be careful when they carry their trays back to their tables. We run out of ketchup and I scoot back to the storage closet to get another couple bottles.
The woman with curly hair and glasses comes back up to the hot line. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but can I try the other sandwich?” She gestures at her barely-touched chicken sausage. “This just tastes…weird. I’m pregnant, so it’s just me, but I don’t think I can eat it.” She gives a small smile.
“Sure, no problem,” the cook places a pork sausage sandwich on her tray. I watch her walk away and now see the full, rounded stomach, obscured a little by the rest of her body, which is also full and rounded. I guess she is about six months along, a month ahead of me.
A few people come up for seconds. Most begin to clean up their tables, deliver their empty trays to the slot in the kitchen wall near the industrial sink. The cook goes to his desk and makes notes about the meal–this many sausage patties consumed, this many cans of applesauce opened. I stand between the hot and cold lines, waiting for last minute stragglers.
The pregnant woman comes up again. She points to an empty spot on her tray and says, “More French fries please?”
“Sure,” I say. I fill the space. “Would you like anything else?”
“No, just fries. I have a craving.”
I smile at her, consider leaving it there, but then… “Did I hear you say you’re pregnant?”
“Yes,” she gives another hesitant smile. “I tried to eat the sandwich, but all I want is milk and fries.”
“I’m pregnant, too. It can be hard to eat normally,” I say. Her face opens up, and this time she gives me a huge smile.
She leans in, “What are you craving?”
I tell her I have aversions to everything I used to love–garlic, onions, beef, vegetables of all kinds–and I want to live on bread and fruit and yogurt. I tell her that when I came in this morning, I smelled something so awful in a corner of the kitchen I could barely breathe and I made the kitchen coordinator and cook help me look for the source for fifteen minutes. She lingers over the hot line, and I feel her absorbing my commiseration like a parched and cracking sponge. I feel her gladness, that there is someone else here who knows. I feel her fear, at being here at the shelter while pregnant, at having so few resources while having so much responsibility. I feel my own fear at growing this person, my doubt at whether my body can do it, at what kind of mother I’ll be. It is the ultimate power, the ultimate gift, and yet we are ultimately alone in this endeavor. And I feel how the terror is alleviated for both of us if only in this moment, because we can talk about something as simple as the smell of garlic and the taste of chicken sausage.
While she is finishing her meal and I am washing dishes, we watch each other. When she brings her tray up to the sink, she tells me she wishes I didn’t have to be on my feet, my hands wrist-deep in other people’s messes. It is this kindness that carries me through the rest of my day. It is this kindness that is like coming home, because I recognize it from so many other gifts the shelter has given me.
It is the shelter that saves me, again and again.